A Brady Bunch-esque collage of politicians and talking heads on cable news channels are all talking over each other in cacophony.
There’s Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Sarah Palin, and a plethora of pundits from all over the world, all harping in perfect soundbites about gloom, doom, and our bleak future. Well, in the case of Trump, who you can hear above the din, he’s talking more positively, about “so much winning” to come that we’re “going to get bored with winning.”
Then comes the title card: “In the year 2016 there was a growing sense that people were losing their minds,” it begins. “And no one knew why…” it continues, the politicians still chaotically yapping, until finally: “…until now.”
Welcome to BrainDead, the show that chronicles what happens when, in the midst of a government shutdown, an alien invasion is infecting members of Congress’s brains with a bug that keeps them unable to do their jobs in any smart or discerning way.
As a metaphor for the current state of American politics, it couldn’t be more pointed.
The series hails from The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King, the former of which jokes, “we knew we wanted to go a little different from The Good Wife…” with the new series. To say the least.
The series is part searing critique of the extremism that is crippling politics, not to mention the citizens who gleefully march to the polarized beats of their respective Far Left or Far Right drummers. To wit, Monday night’s premiere episode is titled almost like a college thesis: “The Insanity Principle: How Extremism in Politics Is Threatening Democracy in the 21st Century.”
But BrainDead is also, as its logline suggests, a campy sci-fi thriller, with alien bugs literally eating the brains of politicians and a few low-level staffers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Tveit) with gumption desperate to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
“There seemed to be a lot of parallels between this extremism that was coming out of D.C. and Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Robert King says, letting out a big laugh. The Kings actually wrote and pitched the show two years ago, before Donald Trump had even began his campaign for President. “We’re just finding it come to its glory as a flower in the midst of this election.”
It’s also coming to glory almost exactly a month after the Kings' controversial end to The Good Wife after seven seasons, an explosive finale that had Christine Baranski’s Diane slapping Julianna Margulies’s Alicia Florrick in a bookend to the show’s series premiere—and a comment on the kind of person Alicia had become.
“I was not surprised it was controversial,” Michelle King says, with Robert adding, “My stomach was in a knot leading up to that last week because I knew, for example, that my mother was not going to like it.”
With the jury still out on his mother’s opinion of BrainDead, we talked to the Kings about the new series, what we should read into it about the state of American politics, the Trump factor, the alien factor, and where they might have to spend Thanksgiving now after that Good Wife finale slap.
So it seems, as a viewer, that BrainDead might be a show that is born out of a bit of frustration.
Robert: (Laughs) Yes!
Michelle: A little bit
Robert: You know, we pitched this two years ago. It was right after the government shutdown, I think over Obamacare at that point. There was this sense that everybody had gone insane. That the government had gone off its rails. Partly because there was this sense that they were going to default on our debt. It was all just a little insane. Maybe a lot insane.
And the insanity would last for two more years.
Robert: Little did we know what would happen this year. What we decided that the best way to do a show about something that’s gone off its rails is not go down the middle and take the serious route, but to go the comic and ludicrous route. The absurd route. That seemed like a better way to address it. There seemed to be a lot of parallels between this extremism that was coming out of D.C. and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
People will say that it’s very apt metaphor for how politicians behave.
Michelle: That’s certainly the hope.
It’s hard to escape the voice of Donald Trump in this series. I don’t know if it’s just because it’s hard to get his voice of your head or if he was actually the politician seen the most in it. What was behind serving him up as the example of things going too far?
Michelle: You know what? We actually pitched the show before Donald Trump had said a word about being involved in this election. So fortunately—or unfortunately—the show is not reliant on Mr. Trump at all.
Robert: One of the things we wanted to satirize was the extremism not just on the right, but also the left. I think we have found some great examples in some of the abuses, for example, in the Bernie Sanders campaign. Also even Hillary’s people. There’s in-fighting among the Democrats. This idea preceded all this. We’re just finding it come to its glory as a flower in the midst of this election.
It’s more topical than you even envisioned.
Robert: I could never have imagined what’s going on right now. Out of all the times and all the elections, I don’t think there’s been as much absurdity as there’s been this year.
Is there a fear of alienating anyone because of their politics? That they might see Donald Trump and see it as an attack against him, or vice versa with Bernie or Hillary?
Michelle: To me the concern was not being balanced. It seemed important to satirize both the Far Left and the Far Right. I feel like we did a good job of that.
Robert: The only thing we can do is keep going back to what we did on The Good Wife, which is as much as it was about Democrats in Chicago, it was really trying to see things in ways that TV usually doesn’t. So with a lot of Good Wife cases, there’s either a grey area or we would make fun of the Democrats. Or we would address abortion in a way that you wouldn’t normally see because so many TV writers are left-leaning. Here we really wanted to show that this is really a problem for both the left and the right.
The cable news pundits and talking heads gabbing away about the 24-hour politics news cycle almost seems like a soundtrack throughout the pilot. What is the meaning of that?
Michelle: It’s deliberate, so thank you for bringing up. It’s meant to show that people seek out news organizations that mirror their own thinking, and how that keeps you from understanding the other side because you’re only hearing commentary you agree with.
Robert: Yeah, it’s a problem we all land on. You’ll see that more over the course of the 13 episodes. The bottom line is that everybody kind of wants to preach to the choir that agrees with them. And that’s part of the problem and dysfunction.
That political dysfunction is very real and very realistic. Bu then there’s the alien invasion aspect to the series, which is so genre-y. How did you balance those two aspects?
Robert: Well first of all, we knew we wanted to go a little different from The Good Wife. (Laughs) Here’s the thing. When you’re with a crew and you’re in a court room 12 to 15 hours a day, five days a week, your eyes start glazing over at the ways you can shoot. One of the things that was very exciting was finding a different way to shoot the show that made it more cinematic. That’s when we started playing with the more thriller-esque aspects. I would say that was the main thing. Tonally, we tried to take a page from Patty Chayefsky.
So Network with aliens?
Robert: Network was a movie that doesn’t progress in one tone. It’s not all the ludicrous Peter Finch “I’m mad as hell” or putting terrorists on reality shows. There was also the William Holden and Faye Dunaway half of it that was very much living in the real world. So we thought there was a tonal balance to find where the show isn’t just one thing. It’s two things, and those things kind of happen at the same time. Because those are the extremes of life, too. Sometimes life throws you some really odd things.
When you introduce a sci-fi element like the alien invasion into a series like this, do you worry about longevity? It’s not a procedural like a legal drama that has infinity cases of the week to try. Is it difficult to imagine a long run when you’re dealing with something in this realm?
Robert: Yeah. We told CBS that we couldn’t do it as 22-a-year. We could only do it as 13, which is why they suggested the summer format. We have a plan for four years of the show. Each year takes us to a different location and different part of American life. The first year is about D.C. This is the kind of like The Wire, which looked at different parts of Baltimore each season: unions, schools… Here, the first year is about politics. The second year takes it to Wall Street and shows us how the same kind of invasion is happening there, and it’s about what will be the next recession and how a lot of the compromises and abuses we saw working up to 2008 still exist. Then the third year is about Silicon Valley. A lot of the tech stuff we loved about The Good Wife we bring out that year. By the way this is only if CBS renews us! (Laughs)
Michelle: And we did design it such a way that 13 tells a story that wraps up.
You’ve both said that this is meant to comment on extremism on both sides. But there’s a monologue that Dominic Fumusa gives about “doing anything to stop those Republicans from ruining our country.” As a TV reporter I’m surprised—pleasantly—that CBS is being amiable to such politicized content. Is that something that surprised you going into this, that you were given freedom to be politically charged?
Robert: That’s a very good question.
Michelle: I’ll speak only for myself. I wasn’t that surprised, because of the seven-year history with The Good Wife in which they did not shy away from difficult ideas.
Robert: I think that’s right. The only thing we have been playing very delicately is equal time issues with monitors on the background. How much you see Trump, how much you see Hillary, how much you, at least at this point, see Bernie. We have to be very careful there. But I think with regards to the political content, we were kind of allowed to dance around those issues on The Good Wife, too.
I can’t let you go without one more questions—I guess forever!—about The Good Wife. The slap in the finale was a bold move, which proved to be very, very divisive. Were you expecting such a polarizing reaction to it?
Michelle: I will only speak for myself: I was not surprised that it was controversial. And the network anticipated that it would be controversial, too. So that was expected, and it was a little bit flattering that people were invested enough to argue about it.
Robert: My stomach was in a knot leading up to that last week because I knew, for example, that my mother was not going to like it. And that was about as much controversy as I could deal with. It was like, oh damn, am I going to have to deal with calls there. That’s the frustrating thing, when you know you’re riding towards a certain end and that end makes completes sense, but you know you’re not going to please your mom. (Laughs) Or other people, on top of that. I almost felt sick. There was no way around it. I even wanted to warn her but I thought that would make things worse. Where she’d go in and say, “Could you change it? Could you go back?”
Well I’m sorry it didn’t work out for your mom but—and this is in print on The Daily Beast—I thought it was brilliant.
Michelle: Thank you.
Robert: Thank you so much. Now that you say that, we’re probably going to be going to your house for Thanksgiving because we might not be welcome at mine.